Happy Friday! Today we’re continuing the 8LW 2021 Short Story Challenge. Though it’s not a regular Friday Writing Sprint, feel free to give the challenge a try and post your results in the comments. We’d love to read what you come up with. So far we’ve had Jilly’s “Snow White and the Three Kisses” and Michaeline’s “A Christmas Dream.”
My entry isn’t a holiday story, but it is a tale about a brand new start, featuring almost all of the prompt words: daisy, annoying, romantic, formula, country, careless, confidence, piano, fluent, guest, options, ivory, star, snow, blurry, and photograph.
It Takes a Village
What was I thinking?
Jenny stood by the gate that opened onto the pathway leading to the cottage and resisted the urge to run after Mr. Hendrick’s departing taxi and say she’d made a mistake and had the wrong address and could he take her to the train station instead.
Wouldn’t that have been a sight.
Jenny was normally quite confident and rarely second-guessed herself, but she hadn’t been prepared for the place to look so forlorn with its overgrown lawn, sagging gate, and peeling shutters. It looked like something that had been cast aside and left unattended for too long, no longer the bright, welcoming haven of her childhood.
Jenny looked at her watch, then scanned the country lane in both directions. Where was that estate agent?
While she waited, she pulled a blurry photograph out of her purse. It had been taken later in the year and showed the cottage in its happy, well-tended prime, when the garden was full of blooming roses, harebells, and foxglove, with pots of friendly, sunny daisies clustered on the porch. She could almost hear the bees buzzing around and smell the flowers.
Now, the garden was quiet. Resting. She could just see a blanket of wood anemone with their snowy white faces raised toward a beam of sunlight in the woods beyond the hedges, but within the garden the roses and trees were bare and not yet ready to awaken.
Jenny was brought back to the present by the sound—finally—of a vehicle coming down the lane. The car, a powder blue Riley that looked like it belonged in a museum rather than on a dusty country road, pulled up to the verge and disgorged Mr. Davies, the elderly desiccated-looking estate agent who looked as though he belonged in a museum as well.
Though he looked to be no match for even a slight breeze, Mr. Davies’ handshake was firm and movements spry as he shepherded her through the garden gate and into the cottage, talking all the way.
“So glad you’ve finally come,” he said as he unlocked the front door and stood aside for her to enter. “Now, the plumbing and power have all been serviced and are in working order, and the chimney cleaned with a good stack of firewood laid on. There’s plenty more out in the woodshed when that runs out.”
Jenny wanted to say that she wouldn’t be here long enough to need to replenish the wood pile, that she would be staying just long enough to get the house ready to sell, but he plowed on ahead before she had the chance. He buzzed around the place, opening drapes and whisking the covers off the furniture, continuing his annoyingly chipper one-sided conversation.
While the outside of the cottage had looked forlorn, the inside was much as Jenny remembered it. Two overstuffed chairs still flanked the fireplace and the old upright piano, with its mahogany case and worn ivory keys still stood in pride of place beneath the window overlooking the garden.
When Mr. Davies finally handed over the keys and departed, without ever having given Jenny a chance to get a word in edgewise, the mantle of quiet settled back around the cottage and left her feeling like an awkward guest, unsure of exactly what to do.
As she walked back outside to the gate to retrieve her suitcases, Jenny heard a voice from across the lane calling out a cheery hello. “You must be Cyril’s granddaughter,” said a young woman with a baby on her hip and a toddler close at hand. “I’m Emily. It will be nice to have a neighbor again.” She gave Jenny an appraising look and, apparently liking what she saw added, “I’ll bring you some fresh eggs and milk in the morning to tide you over while you get settled in.”
Jenny thanked her, picked up her suitcases, and went back inside. There was a distinct chill in the air, so she lit the fire in the fireplace, remembering just in time to make sure the flue was opened. Burning the cottage down would not have been a good start to her visit.
Emily’s mention of eggs reminded Jenny that she hadn’t eaten since early morning. She foraged around in the kitchen and pantry and found coffee, tinned soup, and an unopened package of crisps that all seemed safe enough. Michelin-level dining it was not, but Jenny was too hungry to be picky.
She made the coffee in the old-fashioned percolator she remembered her grandmother using, and then ate her soup in front of the fire, almost dozing off before she’d finished. The day had been a long and emotionally exhausting one, so she called it an early night, automatically heading for the old dormer bedroom she’d slept in as a child.
The next morning, she awoke to the sound of hammering. Quickly getting dressed, she went downstairs, opened the front door, and practically fell over a box with eggs, milk, bread, and what looked to be a slab of bacon. Her stomach rumbled appreciatively.
The hammering was coming from the garden gate where a tall lanky stranger in heavy workman’s clothing was busily working. He looked up as Jenny approached. “Emily said the gate was sagging,” he said as he removed his work glove and shook hands. “I’m Daniel.”
“That’s so nice of you,” Jenny said, “but I don’t want you to go to any trouble.”
“No trouble. Just being neighborly,” he said as he pulled his glove back on and turned back to the gate.
Not knowing what else to say and rightly understanding that offering to pay Daniel for his work would not be appreciated, Jenny thanked him then headed back inside to make breakfast. After she ate, she walked through the cottage and made a list of what needed to be done before it could be put up for sale. She’d initially thought it might take about a month but, despite the outside, the inside appeared to be in very good shape and needed little work, other than a good clear-out.
The next day, she heard more hammering. This time it was closer to hand. Upon investigating, Jenny found a different stranger, this one was re-anchoring one of the shutters around the front window. A woman nearby was sanding another shutter and clearly getting ready to paint. “Daniel said the shutters needed a little work,” the woman said. “We’re the Wilsons.”
Jenny was beginning to be overwhelmed by the kindness of these people who had no idea who she was. That kind of thing never happened at her apartment in the city. Frankly, she’d be surprised if many of her neighbors would be able to pick her out of a line up, or she them, despite having lived in the same building for years.
For the first time since her grandfather had died and left her this cottage, Jenny wondered if selling was the right thing to do.
During the next week, Jenny met many more of her neighbors as she encountered them mowing the lawn, pruning overgrown trees along the side of the house, spreading mulch in the front garden, and trimming the hedges attempting to overrun the front gate. It seemed that everyone had known her grandparents and were pleased that she was their new neighbor. Old Mrs. Withers brought her a plate of cookies and promised to share her secret formula for dealing with aphids, come summertime, while the little Jenson twins brought her a watercolor of yellow flowers—or maybe they were stars—to hang on her wall “so she’d have something pretty to look at when it was dark outside.”
Despite her best intentions, Jenny could feel roots beginning to sprout. The feeling only intensified when a calico cat took up residence, sunning itself on the front porch during the day and insisting on being let inside in the evening.
Jenny began to seriously re-evaluate her options. As a translator, fluent in about a dozen languages, Jenny could work anywhere that she had access to a computer, a headset, and a phone. Although she’d always lived in the city, close to the action, there was really no reason she needed to. No significant other. No family. It was hard to ignore the appeal of the cottage, with its romantic rose garden, friendly neighbors, and happy childhood memories.
“I hear Helen down the lane is having trouble with her computer,” Emily said a week or so later when she was dropping off some freshly laid eggs. “You’re good with computers, aren’t you?”
As Jenny rang the bell at Helen’s house and waited to be let in, she realized she’d become part of the village. “Hi, I’m Jenny,“ she said as the door finally opened. “Emily said you needed some help with your computer.”
It’s a good thing Mr. Davies made sure the woodshed was full, Jenny thought as she walked back to the cottage. I guess I’m going to be around long enough to need it after all.
I hope you enjoyed that and that 2022 brings health, happiness, and a fresh new start.
Oh, that’s so nice and cozy! Loved how you worked your words in, and gosh, what a warm and lovely story. (-: I wrote about neighbors and cats, too!
Thanks, Michaeline. I tried to work in a dog too, but ran out of words—LOL.
I enjoyed your story, Elizabeth! Great way to begin 2022.
Thanks Debbie, glad you enjoyed it.